Earth Day and the Polling of America 2011

It's become a rite of spring: a bumper crop of data, surveys, polls, and analyses about the green market space. Each year, as Earth Day comes into view, a picture emerges about U.S. consumer attitudes toward green business and green shopping. It's a murky picture at best.

As I have done for the past several years (see 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010), I've waded through the latest tranche of data -- nearly a score of research reports from major agencies (Gallup, Harris, Ogilvy), boutique firms (BBMG, Cone, Shelton) and some lesser-knowns (Mambo Sprouts Marketing, anyone?) -- that has come out over the past several months. It's a tedious, mind-numbing exercise, to be sure. But it's my self-appointed duty.

Here are three conclusions I've harvested from the latest crop.

1. Consumers are taking a harder look at companies, but they're not impressed. The notion of green business is starting to be eclipsed by the larger notion of sustainable or responsible business, which encompasses social and environmental issues, as well as overall ethical behavior.

As they scan the marketplace, consumers seem underwhelmed. According to the Cone Shared Responsibility Study, three-quarters of Americans assign companies a "C," "D," or "F" grade on how well they are engaging consumers around critical social and environmental issues. That's unfortunate, given the steady parade of progress that we report each week on -- major commitments and achievements by big companies -- though little of this makes it into the mainstream media.

Sustainability seems to be growing as a concept, even though not everyone groks the term. According to the Hartman Group, 15 percent more consumers are now aware of the term "sustainability" compared to three years ago (69 percent in 2010 vs. 54 percent in 2007), though only 21 percent can identify a sustainable product and even fewer, 12 percent, can name specific companies as "sustainable."

That's worth repeating: About four out of five consumers can't identify a sustainable product and nearly nine in ten can't name a sustainable company.

All of which points up two big problems: One, "sustainability," for all its use by companies, remains a mystery to many people. And two, companies haven't yet figured out how to tell their stories in compelling and credible ways.

Companies' walk-talk gap remains vast -- but not in the way many consumers think. The reality is that companies are walking far more than they're talking -- that is, doing more than they're saying.

That was evident in the Sense & Sustainability study by the public relations firm Gibbs & Soell. It found that 29 percent of executives believe that a majority of businesses are committed to "going green," compared to only 16 percent of consumers who believe this. Closing that 13-point gap would be a good start, though it would mean that more than two-thirds of the populace still remains unconvinced.

Suffice to say, there's a vast chasm of credibility. Citizens want to be heard by companies and want to hear what companies are doing, but they don't necessarily trust companies on either count. According to Cone, 84 percent of Americans believe their ideas can help companies create products and services that are a win for consumers, business, and society. But only 53 percent feel companies are effectively encouraging them to speak up on corporate social and environmental practices and products. That represents a big opportunity for smart companies to differentiate themselves.